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Netflix’s “The Swimmers” Fights Stigma Against Refugees

Stigma Against Refugees
“The Swimmers” is a 2022 Netflix production telling the remarkable true story of two sisters, Sara and Yusra Mardini, as they flee the war in their hometown of Damascus, Syria, in search of a better life in Germany. Inspired by true events, the movie captures the harrowing journey refugees undertake in their pursuit of safety and a brighter future, and in doing so, fights stigma against refugees by allowing the audience to empathize and relate to the characters.

The characters first journey to the Greek island of Lesbos, risking their lives in the open sea on an overcrowded boat. To prevent the boat from sinking, Sara and Yusra jump into the water and swim for the remainder of the journey. What follows is their arrival in Berlin and the path that led Yusra to compete for the refugee team in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

The Realities Refugees Face

A strong script and good production capture the journey and realities that the refugees face across the sea and once in Europe. The contrast between friendship and life in Damascus with a near-death experience in open sea creates enduring empathy and humanizes the characters involved as the audience witnesses them separate from their families and the place they once called home.

The detail of the account makes the film an educational experience, outlining the process involved in accommodating such numbers of people and the lengthy bureaucratic procedures necessary to obtain official documentation. The scenes after the refugees’ arrival in Berlin are hauntingly endearing. The movie also highlights the susceptibility of refugees to exploitation and abuse along the journey.

The German government under Angela Merkel admitted more than 1 million refugees into the country in 2015. The movie depicts this once the sisters and their cousin process their photos and fingerprints, after which authorities separate them into male and female shelters. The identical dorms are scattered across a massive floor plan of what appears to be a warehouse, offering beds and storage space, but little to no privacy and personal space for the people inside. A beautiful scene, in the recognition of the government’s investment and efforts to accommodate the asylum seekers, with the somber aftertaste of realizing that many refugee needs still go unmet.

The Refugee Journey

As much as the story focuses on the journey and relationship of Sara and Yusra Mardini, the movie has a split dynamic, dancing on the line that separates the collective from the individual. This cleft dynamic is a central theme. The plot follows the story of the two sisters and is set against the backdrop of millions who have undertaken the same treacherous journey, with continuous reminders of the fortune of those who survived and succeeded in obtaining refuge.

According to data by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of mid-2022, there were more than 100 million forcibly displaced people globally, 32.5 million of which are refugees, with 6.8 million having fled Syria.

The outcome of the split approach the movie adopts highlights the collective plight of refugees and the far-reaching impacts of mass forced displacement while emphasizing the individuality of every person undertaking the difficult journey in search of refuge.

Changing Perceptions Through Information and Education

The efficacy of movies in conveying complex issues and situations is irrefutable. Sensory targeting of the auditory and visual imaginations transports the audience into the character’s shoes, creating empathy and understanding. Yusra emphasizes the importance of the education system in addressing the stigma against refugees by disseminating information and dispelling myths. Yusra, since her appearance at two back-to-back Olympic Games, has become a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and states that the movie will have a strong impact on fighting the stigma against refugees, enabling people to discuss displacement more openly and gain a better understanding of it.

This is a crucial step to take in addressing the stigma against refugees. The prerequisite to changing perceptions of refugees is understanding and acknowledging their struggles and their human need for safety and a stable future. People flee from war and poverty in search of better conditions to live their life. The harsh reality is that for many, conditions do not improve much. Globally refugees struggle to meet their basic requirements for health care, education and sustenance. UNHCR data outlines that four in five Syrian refugees in Jordan lived below the national poverty line prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the movie, Yusra struggled with being unable to represent her birth country, Syria, at the Olympic games. Initially fearing earning her Olympic place due to pity, her experiences eventually amalgamate into a sense of pride at representing the Refugee Olympic Team and turn her into a voice of inspiration and advocacy for all those experiencing what she went through.

Effectively capturing the plight of refugees in a movie fights the stigma against refugees by providing the foundation for this education to begin. This is a story of struggle, hardship and love, the intensities of which many cannot hope to fathom, condensed into a runtime of two hours and 15 minutes.

– Bojan Ivancic
Photo: Flickr